Publisher: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson
Publication Date: 4th April 2019
Dignity was a book I was drawn to on the socials due to its beautifully colourful cover. When I read the synopsis, I thought yeah I’m interested in this and wangled myself a copy. Then it arrived and I flicked through it and put it in my book trolley ready to get to before its publication date. If I’m honest it kinda went out of my head until time whizzed by and March was upon us. It was next up in the loose order of books I ‘had’ to read, and I’m not saying that in any derogatory way, I’m sure we all have a schedule of proofs we need to get to as we’ve committed to reading and reviewing. Anyway, waffle waffle waffle, I grabbed Dignity, marvelled at its beauty once again and tucked it into my bag for the journey to work, not really having any expectations.
What followed, for me, was a beautifully empowering, touching, unflinching reading experience. I LOVE when a book takes you by surprise and you think ‘I’ve had this sitting patiently on my shelf, why the very devil have I not read it sooner?!’.
Dignity tells the interweaving stories of three women, over two time periods. Firstly we have Magda, her young care worker Susheela in the present in the UK, then we have Evelyn, Magda’s mother in the past, in India. Magda is a curmudgeonly old lady who’s brusque no nonsense nature has meant that she has worked her way through a whole host of different care workers trying to find someone who will put up with her challenging ways and moods. Magda is house bound in her large family home, she has an aversion to the outside world and takes great pains to not allow any aspects of the outside world permeate through her precious protective walls.
Enter Susheela, a young university student with problems of her own, dealing with the death of her mother and her difficult relationship. She’s trying to cope not only with her own grief but with her father’s too, desperately trying to keep them both afloat. Susheela has a begrudging admiration for Magda and doesn’t seem phased by her off hand manner. When an event in Susheela’s life accidentally involves Magda, their relationship takes a turn and they are somewhat thrown together.
The evolving of their friendship is so beautiful and heart warming, the stubborn, taciturn, old fashioned nature of Magda and the caring, nurturing but vulnerable side of Susheela.
Interspersed in the modern day we have chapters told from the perspective of Evelyn, Magda’s mother. Told right from the point that she leaves the UK to head to India to be with her railway engineer husband, Benedict in Darjeeling. We learn of Evelyn’s struggles with living in a completely different country, far from home and learning to live with her Indian servants, whom her husband has a very distinct lack of respect for. When she falls pregnant with Magda, Evelyn struggles even more with the Indian way of life, how the British behave over there and the customs she is ill prepared for. She is even less prepared for the change in her husband’s attitude towards her, his demeanour with the staff and his philandering lifestyle.
She feels as though she is being sidelined as a mother to Magda when an indian wet-nurse named Aashi is employed by Benedict to feed the baby. As Magda grows, Evelyn distances herself more for the child, as a self preservation instinct to protect herself from the inevitable pain and heartache when Magda is to be sent back to the UK to be schooled. This is another custom Evelyn is not in agreement with. When Aashi’s involvement with the family causes irreparable issues, there is a life changing event for both Magda and Evelyn.
There are almost too many marvellous threads weaved and storylines crafted for me to discuss. Essentially, we have an epic story of three remarkable women’s lives, each of them in turn as compelling as the other. The dual timeline narrative is always a big plus point for me, however the extra nuance of Evelyn being Magda’s mother and determining and shaping the character she is as an old lady herself is just fascinating, especially as there are chapters in the second half of the book told from the perspective of Magda as a young child in India.
Each of the characters of the three women are so wonderfully written, each with their own distinctive voice, they draw you in and take you right along with them. Magda I think is my favourite, a woman left with no family in a huge old house with only her failing health and her memories. The house is actually pitched as a character in itself, Number 3 Victoria Road. It has become almost a suit of armour, or maybe a prison enclosing Magda in isolation for most of her life. It almost breathes along with her.
There are lots of themes running through this story, grief, war, motherhood and what that means to different people, relationships both romantic and familial, traditions and secrets. I think this would be a fantastic book club choice, so many issues to discuss and a wealth of interesting conversations to be had.
A truly stunning gem of a book that I think will safely make it onto my best books of the year list.
Get yourself a copy!
I would like to thank Virginia Woolstencroft and the publisher for the advanced review copy.
See you soon.
Amanda – Bookish Chat xx